Who Killed Jesus?

Roundup: Talking About History

Jon Meacham, on MSNBC.com (Feb.

It is night, in a quiet, nearly deserted garden in Jerusalem. A figure is praying; his friends sleep a short distance away. We are in the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, in the spring of roughly the year 30, at the time of the Jewish feast of Passover. The country—first-century Judea, the early 21st's Israel—is part of the Roman Empire. The prefect, Pontius Pilate, is Caesar's ranking representative in the province, a place riven with fierce religious disputes. Jesus comes from Galilee, a kind of backwater; as a Jewish healer and teacher, he has attracted great notice in the years, months and days leading up to this hour.

His popularity seemed to be surging among at least some of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the city for Passover. Crowds cheered him, proclaiming him the Messiah, which to first-century Jewish ears meant he was the"king of the Jews" who heralded the coming of the Kingdom of God, a time in which the yoke of Roman rule would be thrown off, ushering in an age of light for Israel. Hungry for liberation and deliverance, some of those in the teeming city were apparently flocking to Jesus, threatening to upset the delicate balance of power in Jerusalem.

The priests responsible for the Temple had an understanding with the Romans: the Jewish establishment would do what it could to keep the peace, or else Pilate would strike. And so the high priest, Caiaphas, dispatches a party to arrest Jesus. Guided by Judas, they find him in Gethsemane. In the language of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, there is this exchange:"Whom do you seek?" Jesus asks."Jesus of Nazareth." The answer comes quickly."I am he." ...

As moving as many moments in the film are, though, two NEWSWEEK screenings of a rough cut of the movie raise important historical issues about how Gibson chose to portray the Jewish people and the Romans. To take the film's account of the Passion literally will give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago. The Jewish priests and their followers are the villains, demanding the death of Jesus again and again; Pilate is a malleable governor forced into handing down the death sentence.

In fact, in the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The crime was sedition, not blasphemy--a civil crime, not a religious one. The two men who were killed along with Jesus are identified in some translations as "thieves," but the word can also mean "insurgents," supporting the idea that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a message to those still living: beware of revolution or riot, or Rome will do this to you, too. The two earliest and most reliable extra-Biblical references to Jesus--those of the historians Josephus and Tacitus--say Jesus was executed by Pilate. The Roman prefect was Caiaphas' political superior and even controlled when the Jewish priests could wear their vestments and thus conduct Jewish rites in the Temple. Pilate was not the humane figure Gibson depicts. According to Philo of Alexandria, the prefect was of "inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition," and known to execute troublemakers without trial.

So why was the Gospel story--the story Gibson has drawn on--told in a way that makes "the Jews" look worse than the Romans? The Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt. The writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped their narratives several decades after Jesus' death to attract converts and make their young religion--understood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaism--attractive to as broad an audience as possible.

The historical problem of dealing with the various players in the Passion narratives is complicated by the exact meaning of the Greek words usually translated "the Jews." The phrase does not include the entire Jewish population of Jesus' day--to the writers, Jesus and his followers were certainly not included--and seems to refer mostly to the Temple elite. The Jewish people were divided into numerous sects and parties, each believing itself to be the true or authentic representative of the ancestral faith and each generally hostile to the others.

Given these rivalries, we can begin to understand the origins of the unflattering Gospel image of the Temple establishment: the elite looked down on Jesus' followers, so the New Testament authors portrayed the priests in a negative light. We can also see why the writers downplayed the role of the ruling Romans in Jesus' death. The advocates of Christianity--then a new, struggling faith--understandably chose to placate, not antagonize, the powers that were. Why remind the world that the earthly empire which still ran the Mediterranean had executed your hero as a revolutionary?

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